Presented on Saturday, October 5, 2019 in the Barn at Quarry Farm as part of the "Mark Twain and Nature" Quarry Farm Symposium.
In 1866 Mark Twain was sent to the Kingdom of Hawaii as a traveling correspondent for the Sacramento Union to assess the potential of the islands future for American economic development. These accounts were eventually reformatted, becoming the basis for Twain's early lectures and the second half of Twain's 1872 full-length account of the American West, Roughing It. They thus shaped perceptions of the Hawaiian Islands for readers both in the United States and the western territories.
This paper traces the evolution of Mark Twain's travel writing in these different accounts of Hawaii by comparing intersections between recorded history and nature writing in Twain's early letters and later full-length narratives. In the twenty-five letters that Twain produced (documenting the islands of Oahu, Maui, and Hawaii) Twain creates a fictitious travel companion, Mr. Brown, whose dialogue gives voice to a theoretical model for travel writing that blends historical documentation with descriptions of the natural world. In these letters, Twain uses Brown to critique "mush-and-milk preacher travels" that distract readers from what is in front of their eyes and obscure the natural world. When Twain condenses the narration of his Pacific travel for Roughing It, he removes Mr. Brown and much of the dialogue from these earlier letters. As a result, the theoretical model offered in the Sacramento Union letters becomes more fully developed; nature takes on an even more prominent interpretive role, often punctuating Twain's depictions of historic spaces and imbuing emotion into the history of the islands. In doing so, they present the natural world as an active participant, which protects and shapes the human history. In Roughing It nature serves as a witness that preserves stories, as well as a phenomena that punctuates Twain's account of human action. In insisting on the importance of natural descriptions in writing a travel narrative, Twain's later work illustrates the impossibility of telling human experiences while ignoring the environment that surrounds those experiences.
Lisa Vandenbossche received her doctorate degree in English from the University of Rochester in 2019. She is an Assistant Professor of English at the College of Coastal Georgia. Her scholarship, which focuses on maritime labor, Pacific exploration and advocacy in the nineteenth century, will be included in the forthcoming collection Cultural Economies of the Atlantic World: Objects and Capital in the Transatlantic Imagination. Her current book project, "Sympathetic Seas: Sailors, Writing, and Reform in the Anglo-Maritime World, 1750-1865," has been supported by fellowships from the Folger Shakespeare Library, The Social Science Research Council, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.